In an article from “The Times of Israel” broadly circulating on social media last fall, it was reported that four elderly Jewish women, ages 87 to 95, were busted for illegally gambling while playing mahjong at a condominium’s clubhouse in Altamonte, Fla. This brought back memories of a similar activity from nearly 40 years ago.
Steve Luttbeg, my wife’s brother-in-law, was a young attorney in private practice in Omaha in the mid-1970s. He recalls being interrupted one afternoon by a phone call from his grandmother Edna.
“What’s the matter Grandma?” he asked after being summoned out of a meeting to take her urgent call.
In a very upset voice, she replied “Oh Stevie. I’m being arrested!”
“For what?” her surprised grandson asked.
“For gambling,” she said, and then in as quiet a voice as she could muster so no one around her could hear, she whispered into the telephone, “and I did it!”
For many years, Edna and about 40 of her Jewish lady friends would meet every Wednesday for a nice lunch at Omaha’s Fireside Restaurant, followed by an afternoon game of penny poker, where the stakes were a penny a bet, and raises could go no higher than a nickel. Each week’s winners were required to donate their winnings to the Omaha Jewish Home for the Aged. Collectively, the winnings amounted to about $15, so around 1,500 pennies were added to the pushke each week for tzedakah.
On the afternoon in question, a recently hired official from the Nebraska Alcohol Beverage Control Board stopped by the Fireside for a routine inspection as part of his duties. When he saw these women playing poker with their pennies, he was outraged. He called the Omaha police to have them arrested for violating a state law that prohibited gambling in a liquor establishment. He also called the press, probably thinking he could make a name for himself and impress his superiors with his diligent crime busting.
In order to arrest this cadre of criminals, the local police had to bring in two paddy wagons to transport the bubbies to the police station for booking. While they waited for the vehicles, they were allowed to make phone calls. Frantic calls were made to sons, daughters, nephews, and grandchildren from every available pay phone at the restaurant.
The paddy wagons arrived and loaded up the 40 or so elderly Jewish women, some with walkers or canes, and hauled them down to the station. By the time they arrived – about an hour after the first phone calls were made – waiting at the police station were: A Nebraska Supreme Court justice, three District Court judges, two or three other judges, the Jewish mayor of Omaha, the chief of police, and a large number of the most prominent Jewish lawyers of Omaha, all related or otherwise connected to one or more of these nefarious ne’er-do-wells! Reporters from the Omaha World Herald and the local TV news stations were also there. My father-in-law, Leo Eisenstatt, a past President of the Omaha Bar Association, came to bail out his mother, Mama Rosie, who raised her hands to shield her face from the news cameras like she was Al Capone, as she was helped out of the wagon. Steve Luttbeg was there with Leo to bail out Mama Rosie (seated on the left in the picture above), and his grandmother Edna (standing in the middle holding the cards), and recalls vividly that “it was a sight to behold!”
The Yiddish Yenta Mafia was released on their own recognizance and charges were never brought against them. In another restaurant frequented by lawyers located across the street from the police station, a sign was posted after the incident: “Help the Vice Squad Stamp Out Old Ladies!”
Everyone got a lot of laughs out of this; everyone except those ladies who didn’t find it one bit funny. They eventually changed their Wednesday lunch venue to the Blackstone Hotel and continued playing penny poker for charity with one major change – one player had to rotate out of a hand or hands to stand lookout for “the Heat”!
And what happened to the slightly over-zealous government official? Rumor had it that he was transferred to a position in Grand Island, a smaller town in outstate Nebraska where he languished as an insignificant public servant for years.
Author’s Note: Thanks to Steve Luttbeg for his recollection of this event that occurred almost 40 years ago. The essence of the story is true, even if his memory of some of the specific details may be slightly off.